Monday, January 8, 2018

Undertale (PS4)

Back in 2015, Undertale launched digitally on PC to near-universal acclaim. When I first heard about the game on launch, I felt like I needed to play it, but despite eventually getting a Steam copy, I never got around to playing it. For some reason, it wasn’t until I got a physical copy (specifically the Collector’s Edition) on PS4 for Christmas that I finally took the plunge and completed the campaign just to see what all the fuss was about. After a few hours over the course of two days, I walked away thinking that Undertale really is a great game, but also feeling that in some ways the hype had tempered my reaction to the experience.

Long ago, Humans and Monsters co-existed until a war broke out between them. Victorious, the Humans used powerful magic to seal the Monsters underground, never to be seen again. Many years later, in 201X, a child wanders over to the site of the barrier between the worlds on Mount Ebott and falls through. Now they seek to return to the surface, which may prove more difficult than imagined.

The start of the opening backstory.

I won’t go too deeply into the actual story, since the very existence of certain characters can qualify as a major spoiler. However, I will say that the story that runs throughout the game, as well as the gradually uncovered lore, is pretty interesting. The player will also interact with a whole cast of characters, each with their own personality and dynamics that help them feel unique and memorable. For this reason, early-game characters Toriel, Sans and Papyrus became instant favorites. There are certainly some shocking or genuinely emotional moments, which I would attribute partly to the easy-to-follow, yet still somewhat complex plot, which holds the story together.

Of course, my reaction to some of these moments was tempered by the fact that I had been spoiled on certain parts of the game before I got the chance to play. I’ll admit that this is at least partly my own fault, but seeing fan stuff, as well as actual information about the game, online or at San Diego Comic-Con and WonderCon had taken away some of the surprise of the game during my playthrough. That said, I was able to dodge spoilers about one particular area of the game and the spoilers didn’t prevent me from figuring out why certain moments were meant to be shocking or impactful and I still felt genuine emotion during certain moments I remained mostly unaware of. Basically, being spoiled on this game ruined some of the surprise, but didn’t do much to diminish my own enjoyment of the story and characters.

Then there’s the gameplay. Undertale is a top-down RPG where the player can explore different areas of the Underground and interact with various NPCs and visit shops to buy and sell items or stay at an inn for a health bonus. Players can also equip items for various stat boosts and use other items to open up parts of the world or complete certain side events. When it comes time to fight bosses or enemies randomly encountered in the overworld, combat begins.

Undertale’s combat system is rather unique in that it combines elements from turn-based RPGs and Bullet Hell games into a hybrid system. The player is given four options: FIGHT, ACT, ITEM and MERCY. While FIGHT and ITEM serve pretty obvious functions, the two more interesting ones are ACT and MERCY. The MERCY mechanic is Undertale’s main selling point: that you can end any encounter non-violently. MERCY gives you the option to Spare a monster or to Flee (running away is a standard RPG move). To Spare a monster, the player will need to use the ACT function, which allows the player to Check an enemy’s stats or perform any amount of unique actions associated with each monster. Each monster is unique, with their own personality traits and quirks, so figuring out each sequence of ACT commands to gain the option to Spare them can be a puzzle of its own if the player chooses to play non-violently.

An example of combat.

Choosing any of the four main options will take up the player’s turn, at which point it becomes the monster’s turn and a white box will show up. Every monster has a unique pattern of attacks which the player has to dodge within this box. Dodging can get more difficult when faced with two or three monsters at once, so players are expected to stay on their toes during this segment. No matter how each encounter ends, the player will gain an amount of EXP and Gold, the latter of which can be spent at shops for better equipment and healing items.

While the overall gameplay is fairly unique and interesting, I overall found it kind of average and the more underwhelming aspect of the game. That’s not to say it was bad, far from it, but it felt a bit easy and less challenging than I had expected. This extends to one of the final bosses, which I had expected to be a big challenge based on how people talked about it, but ended up beating it in two tries. In fact, on the tougher bosses in the game, I got good enough at dodging, and maintaining a high amount of healing items throughout the game, that the low HP I maintained based on my choices became largely a non-issue. Still, I commend the game for at least trying something new and potentially laying the groundwork for a more refined version of the system later down the line.

I’ll also mention here that one central passive mechanic of the game is that it responds to your decisions. While these responses can be very minor and the idea of a game reacting to choices isn’t new, especially in popular games which have branching paths based around this, I will at least say that Undertale is able to take this concept to levels rarely seen in other games. I can’t say anything more without possibly spoiling something, but it’s certainly something to keep in mind while playing.

One notable aspect of Undertale is how its art style attempts to capture an old-school look with more simplistic graphics, likely due to how small the dev team and budget were. In spite of this artistic choice, it feels fitting after a while and is still capable of showing off a good amount of creativity with monster design. That said, the art style won’t appeal to everyone and whether or not the player can see past it will likely affect their enjoyment of the game.

The music is also rendered such that it evokes an old-school feeling, but it seems to work strongly in its favor. Toby Fox has composed a score that sounds like a mixture of piano and electronic which features heavy use of repeating leitmotifs. The result is a collection of songs which really fit the atmosphere and tone of the game at any given moment and a few of the tracks are highly memorable even outside the context of the game, due in part to the aforementioned repetition of leitmotifs. A few highlights from the soundtrack include Bonetrousle, Metal Crusher, CORE, Your Best Nightmare and MEGALOVANIA.

Part of this complete breakfast!

As mentioned before, I obtained a physical Collector’s Edition of Undertale on PS4 before I finally played the game. Along with the game, it also contained a physical 2-disc version of the soundtrack which came with seven additional tracks not found in the normal version (including the version of Bonetrousle featured in Undertale’s launch trailer) and a music box locket. The mechanism of the locket is of pretty good quality and we’ve determined that the locket plays the song Memory when wound up. However, it’s possible to briefly trigger the mechanism for a second if the locket is closed hard enough. Also, without spoiling anything, if you have the locket in your possession before playing Undertale for the first time, like I did, it will take on a greater significance once you've completed the story.

I thought it was worth it.

One final thing to note is that Undertale was surprisingly short. As stated on the game’s website, the average playtime is about six hours, although it took me a little longer over a couple of days due to how and when I played it. Additionally, the PS4 version keeps the aspect ratio of the original PC release, so the player has the ability to add a border around the game to fill in empty space and keep things interesting (especially if you select the Dynamic border).

Undertale is indeed a great game, but, as expressed by the developer, Toby Fox, it’s not perfect. The hybrid battle system and overworld puzzles can feel a bit too easy at times, even when facing some of the more challenging bosses. However, the game is more fondly known for its intriguing premise and concepts, unique and likeable characters, genuinely emotional moments and a rather memorable soundtrack even outside of the context of the game. The experience of Undertale won’t completely satisfy everyone, especially with how easy it is to find secrets on the internet, but it’s worth playing through at least once. If you’re a fan of RPGs or want to see a good example of a crowdfunded video game, try this game.

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